The Bullarto South Balt Camp under a blanket of winter snow. SOURCE: Daylesford & District Historical Society

Refugees offered a ready source of cheap labour

Refugees offered a ready source of cheap labour

While the gold rush era had stripped bare the Wombat Forest, by the late 1940s its dense regrowth was considered by the Forests Commission as in need of thinning. Local willing labour was, however, in short supply. Fortunately, for the Forests Commission, help was at hand in the form of World War 2 refugees.

By 1947, two years after the end of the war, Australia was under international pressure to accept immigrants from among Europe’s “army of displaced and persecuted people.” Since the adoption of the White Australia Policy at Federation in 1901, Australia had closed its borders to all but immigrants of ‘white’ colonial British stock.

In power at the time, the Federal Labor Government decided to relax restrictions (slightly) and open the borders to non-English speaking ‘white’ war refugees as this suited their recently introduced assisted migration program aimed at boosting Australia’s population.

“We cannot continue to hold our island continent for ourselves and our descendants unless we greatly increase our numbers,” declared the immigration program’s architect Arthur Calwell.

For the Forests Commission, the arrival of indentured World War 2 refugees was a godsend, providing a ready source of cheap labour for thinning, cutting firewood, road construction and fire protection.

So, here at the Bullarto South camp, high on top of the Divide at 845 metres in the Wombat Forest, some 25 to 50 refugee men from northern Europe’s Baltic states were installed in two-man cabins that lay on both sides of Camp Road, far from their familiar closely settled fields and villages. Initially, there were no made roads in the area. Many of the men came from professional backgrounds and were to suffer from blisters and other injuries resulting from wielding an axe, which is all they had to cut down trees in the forest surrounding the Balt camp. Logs from the felled trees were then hauled by horse and dray to a saw bench for cutting into ‘foot’ blocks (300mm) for firewood, sold by the Forests Commission into the Melbourne market.

Apart from the mess hut, a toilet and shower block, a storeroom, water tower and a ‘mongrel’ diesel generator, the only facility for entertainment was a patch of clear ground where the men kicked around a soccer ball. At night, they would huddle around the fireplaces at either end of the concrete-floored mess room to keep warm during the freezing cold of the long winters on top of the Divide. For R&R, after working a five day week, they headed off on weekends by walking 4km to Bullarto where they could catch the train to the bright lights of Daylesford.

When they had made a bit of money, each cabin would buy a motorbike with one of the men riding as a pillion passenger. A major problem, however, was that as Europeans they were used to driving on the opposite side of the road. A number of workers were injured when they crashed into cars or swerved into the forest. Swimming in the deep, dark lakes was to prove another hazard, with some escaping the war only to drown in cold currents.

While many went on to become Australian citizens, the refugees must have felt at the time as they toiled in summer heat and winter snow to pay off their two years’ debt, as doubly dispossessed; immersed and surrounded, as they were, by an impenetrable wilderness that was totally alien to them.